"Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream. It is not dying, it is not dying.
Lay down all thought, surrender to the void. It is shining, it is shining.
That you may see the meaning of within. It is being, it is being."
John Lennon and Paul McCartney
from Tomorrow Never Knows, on the album Revolver
Don't look now, but something important just happened on Mad Men. A major character, someone with real talent in the field, just rejected advertising. Someone who happens to be ad guru Don Draper's bright and shiny new wife.
Megan Calvet Draper's Marxist academic father, who so disapproves of her work in advertising, and of her life of easing into wealth by marrying a rich older man, evidently got through to his daughter in the episode before this. She's now pursuing her dream, which was unclear then but turns out to be acting. And she is resonating to big cultural influences posing fundamental questions about the big money machine she's a cog in on Madison Avenue.
As always, there be some spoilers ahead. Incidentally, you can see all my Mad Men pieces, going back to 2009, here in The Mad Men File.
The Beatles' Tomorrow Never Knows marked a major breakpoint in pop culture.
Megan is certainly familiar with the concept of false consciousness from her Marxist academic father. The Beatles song that she tells Don to listen to gets at false consciousness, not from a materialist standpoint, as her father would have it, but from a spiritual standpoint.
This is the first time I can recall an actual Beatles song being licensed for use on a TV series. It's extremely expensive to do, and it's hard to get approval even with payment, so I would bet that Matthew Weiner has a reason for doing it. At the reported $250,000 (!), he had better.
Megan's not the only one questioning advertising. Irritating Stan, who arrived at the agency as something of a star after doing some work on President Lyndon Johnson's re-election campaign, reacts to Megan's departure by noting that you work hard for a long time on an account, and for what? "Heinz. Baked. Beans."
Really now, Stan, what do you think this is, anyway? The '60s?
Before we get back to that, let's deal with the soapy side of the show.
There we have Pete Campbell, who has chosen to advance, if that's the word, beyond flirting with a teenager in his driving class and dallying with a hooker to making a real commitment to regularly cheating on perfectly delightful wife Trudy by picking up on the wife of a commute buddy. She's into it and out of it, leaving things in a teasing limbo by drawing an evanescent heart for Pete's momentary delight but ongoing angst. Because he's an angsty kinda guy, doncha know.
The show drops a few seeming suicide references Pete's way as well, but I don't make too much of them. If all the characters whom many had imagined were about to meet their doom on this show had actually shuffled off this mortal coil, there'd be hardly anyone left. Including Don himself. The chronic subject for the dramatic demise scenario. Is he really the falling man (that appropriated motif from 9/11)? Or is it a, um, metaphor?
Instead, after more than four and a half seasons, none of the leading characters have perished. The title of the episode, Lady Lazarus, comes from a Sylvia Plath poem. Plath, of course, was a famous suicide, so if that's the direction you're looking in, Matt Weiner has provided yet another shiny lure to draw you forward.
It's actually been rather stunning how out of touch with emerging cultural change the folks at Sterling Coo, then Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce have been.
Pop Art has been exploding in Manhattan since the early '60s -- driven by former advertising industry folks like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist -- yet the SCDP crew has, oddly, essentially ignored it.
Peggy Olson, as the leading young character till now, has brushed up against the counter-culture countless times, but little of it ever sticks.
(This episode was another rugged outing for Peggy. First she learned that Megan has rejected the advertising career that Peggy strained so hard to achieve. Then she had another poor client pitch, this one that Megan had run through so winningly earlier with Don, botching her lines with a less than into it but increasingly alarmed Draper. She did better in arguing with Don. But both were really less upset with each other and more perturbed with what Megan's rejection of the field they've given all for implies about their choices, and just maybe about them.)
Don Draper had a beatnik girlfriend early at the beginning of the series. But aside from sending some poetry to Anna Draper in California and his epic near meltdown in the "Jet Set" episode, apparently spurred by seeing aerospace theorists' blithe scenarios for nuclear Armageddon, he's rejected it in favor of alternating between Rat Pack mode and pretending to have the perfect family/marriage.
Roger Sterling took up with Don's perfect secretary, Jane Siegel, who struck me as a Mod. But aside from her fascination with the JFK assassination, her character never advanced beyond background trophy wife, albeit one who caused Roger to redecorate his office in starkly new ways.
Now Don is the one with a much younger wife, whom he's thrilled to work so well with, as well as show off. I think he's not only very taken with her, he loves her. But she's moving with the culture, and the end of the episode, with Don rejecting the Beatles song she instructs him to listen to, is not a good sign for him.
Of course, we don't know what's actually happening with him yet. Maybe he did get the song, and began to grasp what it really means for his life and his business, and that's why he turned it off.
It was great to see Don and Megan do well with the Cool Whip pitch in their practice. They really do have good chemistry, and Megan is smart and supple in the ad game. But with Megan having departed, Don's interest plummeted.
It seems that he's most interested in the business with Megan involved; without her involved, he's at sea.
Earlier, with a cologne client who wants something along the lines of the Beatles' great movie, A Hard Day's Night, which came out two years earlier, but doesn't know the wrong song when he hears it, Don was mystified about why music was suddenly so important. Suddenly? (Though from a continuity standpoint it's an odd thing to say for a character who's already shlepped backstage at a Rolling Stones concert in pursuit of an ad.)
The show's stalwart style leaders -- Don, Roger, and Joan -- have all been resolutely rooted in late '50s to early Camelot motifs.
First Roger, then Don, pursued the classic older male strategy for keeping up with what's current -- and for feeling younger -- of a relationship with a much younger woman. It worked best for Roger after he took LSD with Jane and decided to end the marriage.
It's worked for Don in terms of making him happy, at least so far, and at least not when he's having destructive fights with Megan, but is it spurring his insight?
Not so far.
Will Don get it? It's easy to say he won't. But he should. He's shown himself to be the most fundamentally adaptable person on the show. After all, that's why Dick Whitman from painfully Nowheresville is "Don Draper," a Manhattan Master of the Universe. Okay, erstwhile on that last part.
Will Megan make a go of it in acting? Who knows? That field is a real crap shoot. After all, how many members of the outstanding Mad Men cast were we familiar with before the show?
Most people don't live in history, they live in the momentary, mostly the moments of their own lives. (Especially true today, with the enormous emphasis on the momentary in our technologized media culture of Twitter, Facebook status updates, instantaneous "news cycles" free from context and understanding, etc.)
But history always gets the last word. And there are times when history intrudes on even the most tunnel visioned lives.
Mad Men is heading right into one of those periods.
A few notes about where the Beatles are at this point, and what they are up to with this very important song.
The liner notes on my copy of Revolver -- one of the great 2009 remasters, which I highly recommend -- lovingly describe the lengths to which the Beatles went to create the psychedelic sound on Tomorrow Never Knows. The Beatles were somewhat before my time, so I didn't catch the dramatic break they were making. But having grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I was suitably marinated later by the music of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship, the psychedelic sound of Tomorrow Never Knows doesn't sound as shocking as it must have to Don Draper.
Tomorrow Never Knows was the first song the Beatles recorded for Revolver, in April 1966, but they placed it last on the album, reasoning that nothing could follow it.
It is an important beginning to psychedelic rock, at this point just becoming a very major genre of its own. But it's not so much the sound as the sentiments that are important. And those would be off-putting for Don.
The Beatles cribbed their lyrics for the song from LSD guru Timothy Leary, who in turn cribbed from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, the popular name for a central text of Tibetan Buddhism.
Affluent Westerners like Leary took psychedelic drugs as a technological shortcut to try to achieve the sort of breakthrough into enlightenment that took Buddhist monks years of meditation to attain.
The beat culture, which preceded hippiedom, and which Don encountered in Season 1, frequently embraced Buddhist influences, with many taking not to psychedelics but to Zen meditation. But that takes time, and there are no guarantees of dramatic insights. In fact, the dramatic breakthrough isn't really the point, as I've learned through my own meditation, but that's another conversation.
The resort to techno-fix, in this case technologizing your perceptions through taking drugs, is a classic crutch of Western civilization. But that's an irony that would forever elude some.
Revolver was released in August 1966. Which means that Megan has been quick to pick up on a very important song that is not at all a pop-style Beatles hit. The Beatles have just played what turned out to be their final public concert, on August 29th in San Francisco. Once an incredible live band, they're turning into a studio group, continuing in the vein of Tomorrow Never Knows, a song impossible to reproduce live in those days.
When they made A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles were into speed, their old standby from their club days of playing round-the-clock in Liverpool and Hamburg. By the time of Revolver, they've moved on to LSD.
Has their world, and the world they help influence, gotten clearer, as it would through meditation? Or has it gotten stranger?
Maybe Don Draper is starting to get the answer, and doesn't like it. And just maybe the world is getting stranger no matter what the Beatles do.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.